Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Until You Walk a Mile in My Shoes

One of the things I try to do on this blog is give you an honest look at the agent’s side of things, including why I often reject some of the many queries I receive. Unfortunately, while I can be as honest with you as possible, there is no way for you to really know why I’m rejecting the queries or what I mean when I say certain things unless I do one of two things: (1) start posting the 70 queries I comment on, or (2) invite all of you over to go through my queries with me. Unfortunately, or fortunately, neither is ever going to happen.

I think that, for me anyway, it’s really hard to explain what I mean by “it’s been done too many times before” unless I can show you the queries that all start to sound the same and run together. And certainly it’s hard to explain why “first novel” might be a turn-off until you see some of the partials that I see. Does that necessarily mean that I’m punishing all authors for the mistakes of a few. I really don’t think so. In fact, I think that I am always more than willing to give authors a chance. In fact, I frequently request first novels because the idea is so compelling that I don’t care, and I also frequently see the same general stories again and again, but the twist is what makes it new and different. That’s the hook, folks.

You also need to consider that oftentimes my rejections are coming from talks I’m having with editors or experiences I’m having with my own clients. I might be rejecting your work because, believe it or not, I tried to sell something similar with no luck or because editors are telling me that there’s no way they can buy anything like that.

I’ve often heard authors say, after judging contests or talking with authors, that suddenly they get what my job must be like. Why it can be hard to say no, or sometimes, so very easy.

So when you start criticizing agents for turning down projects that have been done before or calling us names because we don’t really want original ideas, I think you need to think a little bit about our side of things. You sit down and try to read 70 to 100 queries in one weekend and the 10 or so proposals that you request that will follow. And then I want you to find five books that you absolutely love and adore. That you think are the greatest things you’ve ever seen and try to sell them. And find that no one will bite . . . oh, wait, it seems our jobs are not that different at times.



MAGolla said...

Wonderful post, Jessica!
I'm one of those writers who has been judging contests for years and totally get what you're talking about. At least you can put the partial down after a couple of pages and send a rejection letter, but we judges have to push through and score the entire submission! I tend to associate the pain similar to jamming an icepick in my eye. But these authors have to start somewhere and along the way I've discovered some gems: Christie Craig leaps to mind. I judged her current novel 'Weddings Can Be Murder' and 'Murder, Momma, and Mayhem' a few years ago, and have been keeping my eyes open for other writers that I've judged and loved.

Mark Terry said...

You know, I think I'll blog about this myself today. It made me think:

If I were an agent, look over at my bookshelf and ask yourself, hard and brutal, if this manuscript came across your desk, would you have agreed to market it.

And before you make that decision, remember that it's a tough buyer's market. Pretend these are first novels.

Bag of Bones by Stephen King. Yes, absolutely.

Bloody Mary by JA Konrath. Maybe not.

Rage by Jonathan Kellerman. Maybe.

"D" is for Dead by Sue Grafton. No.

Interesting exercise.

Anonymous said...


I've only queried one agent before. My work is sitting on it's seventh week of the eight weeks I agreed to leave it. Querying the agent made me curious about their world. I've been reading your blog for a few weeks to get a glimpse in to the other side. You do a fantastic job of explaining your job and the natural tedium of rejection. Please, keep it up, and thank you.

Unknown said...

I get the feeling that you're feeling a bit down because of some negative authors. Hope that's not the case. Another pitfall of your profession is that you have to work with people who aren't always very professional (although they probably consider themselves as such).

But to add to what you're saying...an analogy that really works for me is how I act in a book store. I've got maybe $20 to spend. That's one or two books. Usually, I'm going in with an idea of what I'm looking for: romance, fantasy, just something fun, history. Sometimes I've got a recommendation from a friend on what to buy. Already, I've cut the book store at least in half, just with my mood and presuppositions upon entering. Then there's a lot of factors involved, starting with luck: do I happen to glance in the direction of the book? Is the book on the bottom shelf or top shelf or at eye level? Has the book store owner flipped a book to face out? Does the cover art attract my eye?

Given all these circumstances, and I finally pick up a book out of hundreds or thousands. From there, I read the back cover copy and maybe the first couple of lines of the book.

If you think about it, I'm pretty harsh with my selection. There are hundreds/thousands of books in the store, and I only leave (I can only leave) with one or two. Sure, some others of them were great and it was a tough decision. Some were just "not right for me" but still had merit. Some didn't deserve publication and just sucked. But even in a place where everyone has at least some level of quality (not a guarantee in a slush pile), there is still a level of selection that mirrors agent selection.

Kimber Li said...

I do something similar and to a smaller extent as a blogging book reviewer. At Enduring Romance, we only review books we like, which means our reviews are always positive. It also means I can't read and review every book out there,because I only like a few of them.

Some books other reviewers rave about I think are absolutely stupid or have been done to death all over the place.

Some books I want to read and review, but don't have the time or the publisher is fresh out of ARCs or I'm not important enough to merit an ARC.

So, I get it. I also think agents should be very careful how they word their form rejection letters. It's all most aspiring authors have to go on. A few might get mad, but a lot of them may conclude the agency never wants them to query again. That would be tragic because I hear it's usually not until the fourth novel that a publishable author produces a novel worth publishing.

Scott Eagan said...

Let me toss in another agent's perspective.

When a writer sends his or her manuscript to one of us, they truthfully believe that it is the best work they have done. Writers should be very proud of the work they did and having the guts to send it out to agents and editors is great.

But I have always said, and Jessica seems to say the same thing, that sometimes the story is just not right for them. It might be for the agency in general or it might be because we cannot sell it. The writing may be great but we have to believe in it enough to really want to push it.

So, do we pass on projects that might sell. Sure! I met a lot of writers that came over and talked to me about projects I passed on that sold. It just meant that at that time, it wasn't going to work for me.

Scott Eagan

Anonymous said...

This is why I think most aspiring authors would benefit from doing these things: a) Go to Miss Snark's archives and read the query letter crapometer entries for five hours straight; and b) join a critique group with writers at all different levels of ability. This gives writers the right perspective if they're not too stuck on themselves to learn the valuable lessons there.

jbstanley said...

It's funny that you mentioned judging a writing contest. Honestly, that is one sure way to know what it's like to judge a query or a partial. Reading 30 entries, some of which were not ready to have seen the ligth have day, some of which showed potential but needed a few more passes through the editorial machine, and a few of which shone in the areas of voice, setting, plot (or happily for the winner and for those of us reading, all three of those areas) was a ton of work. (Sorry about the long sentence, folks). Judging a contest may be a terrific idea for aspiring writers. You'll see quite clearly what separates the better works from those that aren't ready. Even if, as Jessica says,you can't verbalize the differences, your gut will respond. After all, we're all readers and we know if we'd like to read a piece further or would rather use it to line the hamster cage. Give it a try if you can! It's a trying, but rewarding experience.

Anonymous said...

In the past I've queried agents on projects that weren't ready. Of course, it's always easy to see after the fact.
Two rejections stand out, ones that I thought positively hateful at the time.
"Not right for me."
"I can't sell this."

Simple and to the point, but harsh to my untrained ears. Yet in hindsight, they are easier to take than complicated, mushy no-thank-yous.

Laura K. Curtis said...

I'll add something that Jessica doesn't say, as someone who *was* rejected by her when I sent my first partial a long time ago. (I don't think BookEnds accepts unrequested partials these days, but they did then.) I didn't get a form letter, but I did get one that said, basically, "good, but people won't buy this kind of thing." Of course, I was upset, but it never occurred to me to think she didn't know what she was talking about--after all, I'd researched her before submitting!

Still, it was the book had completed, so I was still pitching it rather than anything else when I went to Sleuthfest a year or so later, and heard the same thing from others.

So I wrote something else, something both Jessica and I thought would sell, and tried again. This time, I got "the call" from Jessica!

That book, by the way, hasn't yet sold, so it's worth noting that even when an agent *does* gamble on your work, it may not be successful! (I am, of course, working another.)

But that whole experience has reinforced for me how vital it is to research and trust the agents you submit your work to--if you know they sell a lot of what you write, and their comments are "it's been done" rather than "not for me," it's much easier to let go and start work on something new. But if you're just blind querying, it's easy to fool yourself into thinking the agents don't know more than you do about the field.

Anonymous said...

I've attended an American-Idol-style panel at a writer's conference where three publishing professionals (one agent, two editors) critiqued the first two pages of submitted manuscripts. It was truly amazing how quickly we (the audience)could tell the publish-readiness of the material. No need for the professionals to comment. I'm sure it must be painful for the not-ready authors to hear--and I applaud their courage for volunteering--but it was so very clear (sometimes from the first sentence or two). Out of fifteen manuscripts, one was excellent (and received a request from the panel instantly), one was okay, and the rest were just not good.

It gives me a lot of sympathy for editors and agents when we consider what volume passes across their desks.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully you'll be inspired and uplifted by something you are reading soon (We all need that) ... For those of us working on our books and/or waiting for agent responses, your blog keeps us informed and connected and understanding to the challenges agents face. It's like a lifeline many look forward to seeing everyday. I recently discovered your blog and even when you're having a tough day, please know that you are "bringing up" those of us reading the blog that are hungry for your shared thoughts on writing. Thanks for taking the time to do this.
I do have a question, too. You mentioned recently something about research you do when evaluating someone's work. Do you have a routine thing you do, such as Google the author and the subject, and similar books? Is checking facts in the query/proposal done by you then, or confirmed when edited? Or, do agents contact publishers they're closest to prior to giving a nay or yea to the author to see if there's any interest? It seems all that can be very time-consuming,but perhaps initially necessary.

Luke said...

Hi Jessica,

This was a great post and hopefully not motivated by an overwhelming amount of negative responses from query denial or polite rejections. Authors and Agents alike know how tough this business can be and how thick our skins need to grow, but I see over and over again people blaming the gatekeepers or next link in the chain of success for their own failures. It's true, some stories are just no good, but others are not right for the time or not right for that particular agent. As with anything in life, if this is our passion to be writers, we can't take each and every rejection we get as a personal vendetta against our career goals. It's all motivation, another reminder to get sharper, get better and stay focused on our goals. So, thanks for your post and hopefully the good feedback and gratitude you get from people far outweighs the bad.

Robena Grant said...

Wonderful post.

I agree that judging contests provides tremendous understanding for what might go through an agent or editors mind as they read our submissions. I look forward to judging the RWA Golden Heart every year. However, the new writer rarely finds his/her own mistakes. It's just the way we read our own material ... can't see the wood for the trees kind of thing.

This really is a subjective business and it's hard to know what will appeal to an editor and what won't. For those of us who've been at this game for a few years, we're used to the rejections. We're still saddened when it's a no, but we understand. We know all we can do is keep writing, keep learning, and keep trying to get our stories heard.

JES said...

beth@9:43: Outstanding comment. That really does a nice job of "making it real"!

I've never judged a contest. But I've helped administer a contest for a successful but small press -- around 600 entries a year. I've seen the exhaustion (and the guilt) lining the faces of the first batch of readers/judges. Everything does start to look alike after you've plowed through, say, 20 of a random selection of 100 manuscripts.

T. M. Hunter said...

I think it would be interesting to read what people actually send in to a real agent with the complete intention of getting representation.

Until then, I'll just have to settle for the Miss Snark archives and visits over to Evil Editor.

Jess Anastasi said...

It's easy to let a few negitive people drag us down sometimes, and I guess that's why blogging is so great - to be able to share with people who understand. I've also judged writing comps and been an assistant editor on a community book of short stories brought out a few years back in my home town. I always try to stay subjective when reading work that maybe shouldn't have been submitted in the condition it was in. Everyone has to start somewhere, and I just hope the people I rejected learned something and continued onwards. I know that some years ago now, I was the one with stars in my eyes and no idea how to go about this business!
Even now when I've been in a half asleep (becuase my 7 month old daughter thinks it's fun to play at 2 o'clock in the morning) or in a hurry becuase I only had a short amount of writing-dedicated time, I've made simple mistakes on query leters and proposals that I could kick myself for later. Luckily it seems that most agents will treat you well if you are professional to them in the first place.
I don't envy you of your job, Jessica. I know you must love doing it, but personally I don't think I could, so I commend you and your level-headedness, especially with the week you've had so far!